‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’: Fincher’s fast-paced thriller captures Larsson’s vision’

Darin Miller Movie Critic
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Stieg Larsson, the author of the Millennium series, died before his stories were published. Considering he personally had no say over the cinematic adaptations of his work, the just-released David Fincher version of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and the 2009 Swedish version both stick remarkably close to their gritty source material.

Larsson’s story focuses on two characters, Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) and Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig), both drawn from stories by Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren. The rest comes from Larsson’s love of crime fiction and his years of fighting racism as the editor of Expo, a Swedish magazine.

Blomkvist, a 40-something journalist for Millennium magazine, has just been convicted of libeling the corporate titan Hans-Erik Wennerström. Blomkvist is Larsson’s idea of what Lindgren’s Kalle Blomkvist, a boy detective, would look like decades later. Craig’s Blomkvist is tired — worn out from a trial that ran away from him and a conviction that emptied his bank account and destroyed his credibility. He is a man defeated.

Then there’s Salander. Covered in tattoos and piercings, with choppy black hair and bleached eyebrows, Salander doesn’t look like a brilliant computer hacker with a photographic memory. But Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking wasn’t physically daunting either. Salander is a ward of the state, with a violent past shrouded in mystery. She sporadically works for Milton Security, where she completed a background check on Blomkvist for Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the retired head of the family-owned Vanger Corporation.

Blomkvist’s background is clean, and shortly thereafter Henrik hires the deflated Blomkvist to, officially, write his memoirs. The book is Blomkvist’s cover to investigate a 40-year-old family mystery: the disappearance of Harriet Vanger, Henrik’s niece. Henrik is convinced that one of his relatives killed Harriet, and promises to help Blomkvist crush Wennerström if he can find out what happened to his niece.

Blomkvist moves into a cottage near Henrik’s home and begins to investigate the Vanger family. But his hunt for Harriet’s killer soon takes a dark turn, as Blomkvist finds a link between Harriet and a series of brutal unsolved murders from across Sweden. Blomkvist soon hires Salander to help him catch this sadistic killer of women.

Larsson’s novel was first published under the Swedish title “Men Who Hate Women,” something Larsson learned about at a young age. When he was 15, he witnessed a gang rape, and it changed his life. Violence against women is a major part of the series, and Larsson holds nothing back when he describes such brutality. Fincher’s adaptation shows a little less than the 2009 film, sparing the audience through some inventive cutting, but what he does show is no less brutal. This cruelty is accentuated through the unforgiving Swedish winter, with continual gray skies and snowfall. Fincher is back in his “Fight Club” and “Se7en” element after the “The Social Network,” and it’s like he never left.

One of the biggest differences between the Swedish film and Fincher’s is the pace. The book and 2009 adaptation both take their time to develop, slowly establishing the characters and setting. But Fincher’s Americanized version moves quickly. In the beginning, the cast spews their dialogue, hurrying the story from the set-up to the investigation. Fincher also cuts frequently between Salander’s scenes and Blomkvist’s, dividing the investigation between them to keep things moving. Whenever it slows, Salander zips from one locale to the next on her motorcycle to pick things up again.

There’s really no way to make the story suspenseful for those who have read the book or seen the Swedish film. For those who haven’t, Fincher does an excellent job — with an awesome cast — of keeping the villain a secret until the last possible moment.

The real treat here is Mara’s Salander. Her pale skin and punk clothes make her almost a black-and-white figure passing through a grey world. She’s sullen among strangers, but not shy. She’s calculating, and lives by her own code. Mara is completely comfortable with the character. Her performance drives the film as much as Craig and the investigation.

Larsson’s plan was to create a 10-part Millennium series. While his passing means he won’t, the serial style that has propelled the James Bond franchise for decades pervades the books and Fincher’s film. The opening credits feature oil-covered bodies writhing about, and the villain’s insane monologue to a captive Craig only accentuate the similarities. While it’s unlikely we’ll get more than maybe four films out of this series, Fincher and Mara have brought to life an iconic female lead that brings something fresh to a thriller genre dominated by men.

Darin Miller is a movie critic in Washington, D.C.